Wednesday, October 13, 2010

SCAM ARTISTS EXPOSED






"THE INVESTIGATOR," SANTA BARBARA NEWS-PRESS, 13 DECEMBER 2008

Just off Yanonali, where bottom-feeders linger for migrant work, El Estero Wastewater Treatment Plant transforms raw sewage into compost and recycled water. Manager John Schoof and Supervisor Todd Heldoorn toured The Investigator through their process.

A steep, fifty-seven-stair descent leads to the discharge room where city sewers deposit their pungent product for pre-treatment. An industrial separator sorts foreign objects from human waste, including dollar bills even a homeless panhandler would refuse.

The Investigator was not offered a mask. Even with industrial-strength air-blowers to freshen the air, the stench of effluent is overwhelming, not least because we arrived at the end of morning rush hour, peak potty prime, said Schoof. This is, don't forget, how the streets of ancient capitals once smelled, even during the Renaissance.

On to the grit chamber, where sand and gravel sinks away (destined to a landfill).

Next, primary clarifiers separate "No. 1" and "No. 2." But some of the former is resilient and clings to water flow. Hence, the next phase: A feces feast. Bacteria--trillions and trillions of microorganisms--are specially cultivated to dine on dung in the aeration tank.

After lunch, wastewater is disinfected with chlorine and then de-chlorinated before it gets pumped a mile and a half into the ocean off East Beach; dry solids are provided to fertilizer companies willing to haul it away.

The problem is not El Estero, which partially sustains itself on methane gas while providing excellent service to the community.

The problem is the crap that isn't being treated.

Which brings us to ...

Work-at-home, "mystery-shoppers" and other get-rich-quick schemes.

Here's how they work: Local con men place nationwide ads offering information on work-at-home "opportunities"--or they offer interviews for entry into a so-called "job placement program."

You phone a toll-free number to inquire; their objective is to extract your credit card details--and exact payment to "get you started" on what essentially is a non-starter.

They prey upon people especially hard during downturns in the economy, when jobs are lost and working part-time at home seems like a practical solution, hoodwinking those who can least afford to lose money.

And now the swindlers: Government Jobs Standard Publishing uses an accommodation address at 1187 Coast Village Road in Montecito. A would-be customer who phoned their toll-free number, (888) 611-9333, was directed to pay $69 by credit card in exchange for application forms.

Hiding behind this official-sounding name is Richard Wells Hughes, 62. He claims Studio City as his whereabouts, but collects voluminous mail from punters daily. The Investigator tracked him to his home address in Santa Barbara.

Since June, the Better Business Bureau has received 517 inquiries or complaints about Government Jobs Standard Publishing, and issued it an F rating--the lowest--partly for failing to respond to the BBB's own inquiries.

The Investigator offered British-born Mr. Hughes an opportunity to demonstrate that his scheme is genuine. He declined.

Another "get-rich-quick" ruse (in which the scam artist gets rich quick, not you) is Anchor House Financial, hiding behind the same 1187 Coast Village Road address--a UPS Shop, which rents "suites" for receiving mail.

Anchor House bills itself as "pre-foreclosure experts" and purports to identify home foreclosure bargains for real-estate investors. Punters are instructed to purchase their "Book Package" for $199--credit card details eased out of you and speedily processed, no refunds.

"They never sent me paperwork they said I would receive in 5-7 business days," wrote Alysia W. of San Jose, "so I contacted them and they gave me a number to another business, which gave me these services for free."

Not the kind of testimonial these alleged fraudsters post on their Web sites to lure prey.

Anchor House's mail drop in Montecito connects to Susan Quinn, who bills herself on the Internet as a Santa Barbara-area "Owner at MQ SQ Productions"--which may exist only in her criminal mind. Ms. Quinn also claims to have majored at Santa Monica College in business marketing, though what she practices is business bilking.

Multiple posts about Anchor House on Complaints Board (a Web site)include:

• "I saw the ad on Craigslist. They charged $199 to my credit card, and I have gotten no further information."

• "Crooks, crooks, crooks."

The Investigator telephoned Anchor House Financial at its toll-free number, (866) 900-9684. A female answered, but refused to identity the owner, manager, or any personnel in what she pretended was a vast empire with multiple departments.

In reality, it is just a telephone, a desk and a credit-card processor. Nor would "Michelle" confirm that Anchor House connects to Susan Quinn, even though Ms. Quinn connects herself to Anchor House on www.linkedin.com. (This means they're not only crooked, but also stupid.)

The Investigator offered Anchor House the opportunity to demonstrate that their scheme is genuine. They did not call back.

We identified these scams to The UPS Shop at 1187 Coast Village Road. "I think it's despicable," co-owner Chris Quinnell told The Investigator, "and we would cooperate with law enforcement if they contact us."

Another such outfit is American Data Group, run out of 424 E. Cota St. in Santa Barbara, under the corporate name Frontier Publishing, which offers a "government job program." You pay $69.95 plus $10 shipping. You do not get a government job.

The Investigator phoned American Data Group--560-6160--and spoke with Olivia Bastaneda. We gave American Data the chance to demonstrate that their enterprise is genuine. Its owner William Clayton phoned The Investigator to say, "I work very hard at what I do," and to express surprise and indignation that his record with the Better Business Bureau is so poor. (It holds the record for most inquiries and complaints this year: 2,505.) But a tentative plan for The Investigator to meet Mr. Clayton at his office to discuss his company's bona fides went undone when he did not phone back.

Another F-rated company is National Sales Group, which operates out of an accommodation address at 27 W. Anapamu St. Its owner is Anthony Newton; one of its principals, Mark Lawrence, has a shady history with American Direct Marketing and ADM Auctions.

"Advertising Sales Execs Needed!" they advertise. But they have no such jobs to give; it's all about take--your money. Complaints include everything from not receiving a refund to not performing as agreed.

Goleta-based Consumer Loyalty Group runs a scam called Suppliers Online, which offers to "supply you with the tools, training, and, most important, the inventory you need to earn the extra cash you deserve."

What really happens is this: they cash your credit card.

They: a group of chums--Chris Sidell, Mike and Todd Hill, Chris Eberz--who have been running credit card scams in Santa Barbara for fifteen years, according to the Better Business Bureau. These were the same cheats behind HUD Refund a few years ago. So named to create the misleading impression of association with Housing and Urban Development, a U.S. government agency, HUD Refund cultivated a scandalously bad record before it ceased to exist in 2005.

Its founders continue to thrive, same old scam, new official-sounding names.

The Better Business Bureau has logged 547 complaints against Consumer Loyalty/Suppliers Online--and issued it an F rating.

Also in Goleta, next door to Consumer Loyalty Group, at 35 S. Patera Lane, is ProShoppers: Omni Computer and Information Management. Owned and operated by James Gibson, this flimflam operation has accrued, over several months, an astonishing 1,521 inquiries and complaints with the Better Business Bureau- another F rating.

Ripoffreport.com has stated the following about Mr. Gibson's scam: "Don't get involved with this company, save your $29.95 and prevent getting charged $9.95 a month thereafter."

Santa Barbara Police Department spokesman Lorenzo Duarte has this advice for anyone suckered by credit card scammers: "Report the crime to police and contact your credit card companies, which will request a police report number to facilitate their investigation."

Rick Copelan, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau in Santa Barbara, told The Investigator: "Santa Barbara has long been a haven for telemarketing operators. Since money is no object for them, they may as well operate from a nice location."

Dave Saunders, chief investigator for the District Attorney's office, told The Investigator, "Consumer protection cases and unlawful business practices fall within the purview of the DA's office."

So The Investigator brought our findings to Allan Kaplan, Senior Deputy District Attorney with Santa Barbara County. "We have prosecuted numerous cases like this," said Mr. Kaplan. "We look forward to prosecuting more -- and to seeing your column."

A crackdown may be in order.